The "virtual panorama" of Athens
viewed from the west made by digitally stitching together
three separate Bonfils photographs.
Photographs illuminate ruins of ancient Athens
"The Light of Ancient Athens: A Photographic Journey by Félix Bonfils, 1868&endash;1875" opens April 23 and runs through Oct. 7.
The exhibition is based on a series of 42 large-format photographs of Athens taken by Bonfils, a French photographer who lived from 1831 to 1885. Bonfils established a studio in Beirut in 1867 -- when photography was not yet 30 years old -- to serve the growing commercial market for photo-graphs of the Holy Land, Egypt, Greece and other places attracting travelers.
Bonfils produced thousands of sepia-tone albumen prints, some 800 of which were acquired by Rudolf Brünnow, a professor of Semitic philology at Princeton from 1910 until his death in 1917. The University received the albums containing the prints in 1921 when his papers were donated to the library. They were recorded simply as "Gift of R.E. Brünnow."
"This department had a very small staff back then," said Don Skemer, curator of manuscripts in the library and coordinator of the exhibition. "These materials came in, and the collection was far more than they could deal with. The materials weren't very well cataloged -- there was a description that said 'Photographs of the Near East.' Since Brünnow did some of his own photography, there was an assumption that Brünnow was the photographer."
About 10 years ago, a researcher came into the Manuscripts Division of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections and requested the Brünnow photographs.
"He said to me, 'Well, most of these aren't interesting. But these over here are interesting. Do you know what they are? They're by the French photographer Félix Bonfils.' At that point, we decided we needed to catalog these properly," Skemer said.
Pulling together the exhibition
Skemer consulted with Dimitri Gondicas, executive director of Hellenic studies at the University, and eventually connected with Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, professor of classical studies at Wesleyan University, who is serving as guest curator for the exhibition.
The 42 photographs of Athens culled from the collection were taken on trips by Bonfils to the city in 1868 and 1875. The photographs show the ancient monuments on a barren landscape by today's stan-dards. According to Skemer and Szegedy-Maszak, the photographs provide valuable information about the condi-tion of the ancient monuments and the "urban" landscape of Athens at the time. They were taken before many of the monuments were reconstructed or sent in pieces to museums. In addition, the photographs illustrate the most important stations on a traveler's itinerary and the preferred points of view from which the monuments and the city were to be seen.
"They are expertly made commercial pictures that Bonfils intended for a fairly well educated audience," Szegedy-Maszak said. "While at school, those people had acquired some basic knowledge of Greek and Roman antiquity and, in turn, had very specific ideas about what they wanted to see when they visited, or dreamed about visiting, Athens. As a result, we find that Bonfils pays most attention to the most celebrated ancient monuments on and around the Acropolis, and he depicts them with great clarity, precision and elegance.
"Before doing this show, I hadn't fully appreciated how skillful he really was," he continued. "For us, the pictures carry both a lot of information about what the monuments and the city looked like 130 years ago, and a nostalgic quality, because Athens was so much smaller and more rural than it is today."
Skemer noted that, unlike photographs of the Near East at the time which usually were teeming with crowds, there are no people in the Bonfils pictures of Athens.
"That was very much a Western view of the Near East: strange, exotic, colorful," he said. "Greece was thought of as the foundation of Western civilization. So it was portrayed as pure, noble and refined. All the Western photographers did the same thing. So you get this strange dichotomy between the same photographers taking pictures of the Near East filled with colorful life, and Greece as just white marble. It's a different aesthetic."
Skemer said the photographs also are noteworthy because of their excellent condition.
"Generally speaking, the photographs that you find in albums and books usually degrade because they are glued in," he said. "They lose a lot of contrast and look faded.
"Not ours," he continued. "Although they are albumen prints and are chemically fragile, they were never glued in. They were just laid into albums with little cuts in the corners. They're absolutely perfect. They look the way they looked 130 years ago. They are very high quality, and that's hard to find."
The exhibition will include the original 8-1/2-by-11-inch prints made from glass plates. In addition, a high-light will be a 14-foot-wide "virtual panorama" of Athens viewed from the west. The piece was digitally stitched from three separate Bonfils photographs by staff members in Princeton's Educational Technologies Center and printed on one sheet by the University's printing and mailing operation.
The show also will include travel literature from the time, ancient objects borrowed from the Princeton Art Museum and atlases and maps that put the photographs in context.
The exhibition is being co-sponsored by the library and
the Program in Hellenic Studies. For more information and to
see some of the photographs, visit this Web site: www.princeton.edu/~rbsc/